We should see the ceaseless creativity of nature as sacred, argues biologist Stuart Kauffman, despite what Richard Dawkins might say.
Biologist Stuart Kauffman has plenty of experience tilting at windmills. For years he’s questioned the Darwinian orthodoxy that natural selection is the sole principle of evolutionary biology. As he put it in his first book, “The Origins of Order,” “It is not that Darwin is wrong but that he got hold of only part of the truth.” In Kauffman’s view, there is another biological principle at work — what he calls “self-organization” — that “co-mingles” with natural selection in the evolutionary process.
A physician by training, Kaufmann is a widely admired biologist; in 1987, he was a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award. He’s also one of the gurus of complexity theory, and for years was a fixture at the Santa Fe Institute, the renowned scientific research community. A few years ago, he moved to the University of Calgary to set up the Biocomplexity and Informatics Institute.
If this sounds heady, it is. And getting Kauffman to explain his theory of self-organization, “thermodynamic work cycles” and “autocatalysis” to a non-scientist is challenging. But Kauffman is at heart a philosopher who ranges over vast fields of inquiry, from the origins of life to the philosophy of mind. He’s a visionary thinker who’s not afraid to play with big ideas.
In his recent book, “Reinventing the Sacred,” Kauffman has launched an even more audacious project. He seeks to formulate a new scientific worldview and, in the process, reclaim God for nonbelievers. Kauffman argues that our modern scientific paradigm — reductionism — breaks down once we try to explain biology and human culture. And this has left us flailing in a sea of meaninglessness. So how do we steer clear of this empty void? By embracing the “ceaseless creativity” of nature itself, which in Kauffman’s view is the real meaning of God. It’s God without any supernatural tricks.
Kauffman is now approaching 70, and his advancing age may partly account for the urgency he seems to feel in grappling with life’s ultimate questions. When I spoke with him, I found him in an expansive mood as we ranged over a host of big ideas, from the prospects of creating life in a test tube to the need for a sacred science.
You’ve suggested we need a new scientific worldview that goes beyond reductionism and incorporates a religious sensibility. Why?
The first thing to say is that the current scientific paradigm has done extraordinarily good work for at least 350 years. The reigning paradigm of reductionism takes a little bit of explaining.
It goes back to the Greeks in the 1st century A.D., and then it explodes at the time of Newton, who had three laws of motion and a law of universal gravitation. With Newton comes the idea of a deterministic universe. In fact, he took himself to be doing the work of God. The theistic god who reached into the universe and changed its course gave way during the Enlightenment to a deistic god, who wound up the universe at the beginning and let Newton’s laws take over. It was the clockwork universe.
So the idea is that if you understand the laws of the universe, you can plug in all the variables and predict what the outcomes will be.
Exactly. It finds its clearest explanation in the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, at the time of Napoleon, who said if you knew the masses and velocities of all the particles in the universe, then you could compute the entire future and past of the universe. As the Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg says, once all the science is completed, all the explanatory arrows will point downward from societies to people to organs to cells to biochemistry to chemistry to physics.
And if you can explain the laws of physics, Weinberg thinks you can explain everything else.
Right. He also says we live in a meaningless universe. Those are the fruits of standard reductionism. And the majority of scientists remain reductionists. It’s comforting in that the entire universe is seen to be lawful; we can understand everything, from societies to quarks. Yet a number of physicists, including Nobel laureates Philip Anderson and Robert Laughlin, feel that reductionism is not adequate to understand the real world. In its place, they talk about “emergence.” I think they’re right.
Can you explain what emergence is?
There are things that we just can’t deduce from particle physics — life, agency, meaning, value and this thing called consciousness. The fact is that we can act on our own behalf and make choices. So agency is real. With agency comes value. Dinner is either good or bad. There’s consciousness in the universe. We may not be able to explain it, but it’s true. So the first new strand in the scientific worldview is emergence.
And that new scientific view has no room for reductionism?
Right. In physics, and in the meaningless universe of Steven Weinberg, there are only happenings. Balls roll down hills but they don’t do anything. “Doing” does not exist in physics. Physics cannot talk about values because you have to have agency to have values. So let’s talk about agency for a moment.
You and I are having an interview right now. We’re acting on our own behalf and we’re changing the world as we do so. The physicist Philip Anderson has a charming way of putting it. He says if you doubt agency, just look at the anguished expression on your dog’s face when you say, “Come.” When I used to call my sweet dog, who died recently, he would give me a sidelong glance. I think he was thinking, “Well, I’ve got more time here.” Finally, I’d say, “Come, Windsor!” And he’d come.
I don’t doubt agency in my dog Windsor. And once you’ve got agency — and I think it’s sitting there at the origin of life — then you’ve got food or poison, which I call “yuck” and “yum.” And once you’ve got food or poison, it is either good or bad for that organism. So you’ve got value in the universe.
Are you rejecting Weinberg’s famous comment? “The more we comprehend the universe, the more pointless it seems.”
I profoundly believe that Weinberg is wrong. I also happen to think that Weinberg is utterly brilliant. He’s one of the best defenders of the pure reductionist stance. But once you’ve got agency, you’ve got meaning. This is the beginning of a change in our scientific worldview. Agency is real, so meaning is real in the universe. Value is real, at least in the biosphere. And these things can’t be talked about by physicists.
So the reductionist model breaks down when we’re talking about how life evolves.
Absolutely. This idea is frightening at first, but then utterly liberating. For 3.8 billion years, the biosphere has been expanding from the origin of life into what I call “the adjacent possible.” Once we’re at levels of complexity above the atom, the universe is on a unique trajectory. It’s doing something that it’s never done before.
To take one example, I argue that the evolutionary emergence of the human heart cannot be deduced from physics. That doesn’t mean it breaks any laws of physics. But there’s no way of getting from physics to the emergence of hearts in the evolution of the biosphere. If you were to ask Darwin, what’s the function of the heart? he would have said it’s to pump blood. That’s what Darwin meant by adaptation. But there may be other causal consequences of the heart, or any other part of you, that are of no functional significance in the current environment, but may become useful in a different environment.
Isn’t this called a Darwinian pre-adaptation?
Yes. And when a pre-adaptation happens, a new function comes to exist in the biosphere and can change the history of the planet. We just don’t know ahead of time what the relevant selective environments are. This is just stunning when you think about it. We cannot say how the biosphere will evolve.
The same is true for our technologies, our economy, our culture. We didn’t have the faintest idea what would happen with the invention of writing or the invention of tractors. These were Darwinian pre-adaptations at the technological level. This is the creativity of the universe that we’re participating in right now. We literally don’t have the faintest idea what the biosphere is going to invent in the next million years, or what technology is going to invent in the next 40 years. Who foresaw the Web 50 years ago?
It seems that one of your big goals is to explain the origin of life. You have devoted much of your career to trying to work out a science of self-organization. Can you explain this?
It’s harder than you think. I wrote a whole book, “The Origins of Order,” and I very carefully never defined self-organization. My own life work asks if there might be laws of self-organization that are sources of order in biology quite apart from natural selection. For most biologists, the only source of order is natural selection. But we don’t need DNA or RNA to get molecular reproduction. People have already made self-reproducing systems. Reza Ghadiri at the Scripps Research Institute took a string of amino acids and used it to replicate itself.
But the second part has to do with self-organization. I worked out a mathematical theory, which says if we have a large enough diversity of molecules and chemical reactions, so many reactions will be catalyzed that you’ll get some form of collective autocatalysis popping out of the soup. The mathematics has been proved, but it still needs to be shown experimentally. For years, I’ve been probing laws of self-organization that co-mingle with natural selection, and give rise to the order we see. And we’re not very far, experimentally, from creating life all on our own.
One of the great mysteries of science is consciousness. Virtually all scientists assume the mind is formed by neural circuits in the brain, while religious traditions typically see a direct connection between the human mind and God. Do you accept either of those views?
Nobody has the faintest idea what consciousness is. In the Western tradition, St. Augustine said the human mind is directly connected to the mind of God. The dualism of Descartes distinguished between mental substances and physical substances. Now, contemporary neurobiologists and computer scientists believe that if you have a sufficiently complex computing system — like neurons or logical gates in a computer — then it would become conscious.
But I’ll tell you my own bias. I think it’s possible the mind is associated with quantum mechanics. Now, a good physicist will say, “That’s just nonsense. Quantum behavior will disappear in 10 to the minus 15th second, so it can’t happen.” Well, there are recent theorems in quantum computing that say that’s not necessarily so. The question is, Can you get sustained quantum coherent behavior at body temperature in something like neurons? Nobody knows.
Are you saying there’s no way that computer scientists in the future will be able to reproduce the human brain? That computers will not be able to create consciousness?
Roger Penrose wrote a book called “The Emperor’s New Mind.” He looked at this argument for artificial intelligence, and he said it’s just bunk. I think he’s right. I’ve fallen in love with the idea that consciousness has something to do with being poised forever between the quantum world of possibilities, where nothing actual happens, and the transformation of that — whether it’s the collapse of the wave function or decoherence, where something actual happens in the world.
If this is related to consciousness, it provides an intellectual framework in which we can understand the mind acting on matter. Quantum mechanics is astonishing because it’s not causal. It just happens. Maybe the mind is acausal. Maybe the mind is non-algorithmic. I don’t want you to take this very seriously. It’s just Stu Kauffman getting old and thinking weird things. But it may be true. And even if my arguments are right, it still doesn’t tell us what consciousness is. I don’t have any idea. Nor does anybody else, including the philosophers of mind.
You call yourself a secular humanist. But you also say we need to reinvent the sacred. What do you mean by that?
Once one gets beyond reductionism, it leads to a radically new scientific worldview, which changes our place in the universe as human beings. We are not meaningless chunks of particles spinning around in space. We are organisms with meaning in our lives, and the way the biosphere will evolve is ceaselessly creative. The way the economy evolves is ceaselessly creative in ways that cannot be predicted ahead of time. That’s why five-year plans don’t work. The same thing for human culture.
OK, we can’t predict what’s going to happen. But I’m still trying to figure out why you invoke religious language. Why do we need a new understanding of God and the sacred?
First of all, because of global communications and commerce, a global civilization of some kind is emerging. But there’s also a natural retreat by some people into religious fundamentalism, and people are killing each other. So I think a shared sacred space across all of our traditions will lead us to coalesce around a sense of what is sacred; for example, all life on the planet and the planet itself. I hope we can find our way to a global ethic, beyond just the love of family, a sense of fairness, and a belief in democracy and free markets.
Historically, God has had a very specific meaning, particularly in the Western tradition. It refers to an all-powerful, transcendent reality. Can you take such a loaded word and give it a new meaning?
Maybe. I have a very explicit reason for wanting to use the word “God.” It’s the most powerful symbol humanity has created. We have been worshiping God or gods at least since the sacred earth mother 10,000 years ago in Europe. In the Abrahamic tradition, our sense of God has evolved. For example, the Israelites, 4,500 years ago, had Yahweh, who was a ferocious warrior, a law-giving God. That’s a very different god than the one that Jesus spoke of, a God of love. So our sense of God just in the Abrahamic tradition has evolved.
The question is whether we choose to take our most powerful, invented symbol and use it in a new way to mean the creativity in nature itself. Is it more astonishing to believe in a God who created everything that has come to exist — planets, galaxies, chemistry, life and consciousness — in six days? Or is it even more astonishing and awesome to believe what is almost certainly the truth: namely, that all of this came to be all on its own? I think the second.
Most scientists talk about the origins of the world strictly through naturalistic means. Why are you so determined to invoke “God”?
“God” carries with it a sense of awe, reverence and wonder that no other symbol carries. It’s a choice. Can we give up the creator God — the all-powerful, omnipotent, all-loving God who confronts us with the problem of evil — and instead find reverence for a ceaseless creativity in the unfolding of nature? I think we can.
I also feel parts of the religious person’s sense of awe. I sense the solace that prayer to a transcendent God brings. But I don’t believe in a transcendent God. I do believe in this new scientific worldview.
Forget the “God” word for a second and just try to feel yourself as a co-creating member of the universe. It changes your stance from the secular humanist lack of spirituality to a sense of awed wonder that all of this has come about. For example, I was sitting on my patio and started thinking about the trees around me. I thought I’m one with all of life. If I’m going to cut down a tree, I better have a good reason. It’s not just an object. It’s alive. Then I thought about the river I’m sitting next to. I can dam the river if I want to. But I’m going to change the ecosystem downstream from it and change the planet.
So even without talking about God, this new scientific worldview brings with it a sense of membership with all of life and a responsibility for the planet that’s largely missing in our secular world. In a materialist society, being spiritual is — if not frowned upon — what you do in the privacy of your own mind because there’s something flaky about it for those of us who don’t believe in God.
It sounds like your God is equivalent to nature.
I’m saying God is the sacredness of nature. And you can go a step beyond that. You can say that God is nature. That’s the God of Spinoza. That’s the God that Einstein believed in. But their view of the universe was deterministic. The new view is that evolution of the universe is partially lawless and ceaselessly creative. We are the children of that creativity. One either does or does not take the step of saying God is the creativity of the universe. I do. Or you say there is divinity in the creativity in the universe. If we can’t transform our secular humanist, consumerist worldview into one in which we have this sense of responsibility, awe and wonder for the planet and all life, then we can’t invent a global ethic. Yet we need it to create a transnational, mythic structure to sustain the global civilization that’s emerging.
You are Jewish, but you’ve said you can’t accept the God of Abraham. Have there been occasions in your life when you wish you could?
Sure. I don’t believe in God, but I seem to thank Him a lot. It’s not logical but it feels right. Of course, Jews don’t believe in Heaven and Hell. I’m almost 70 and have lived a lot more than half my life. Death is frightening. It would be wonderful to be able to believe in a heaven so that when I die, I could see my daughter who was killed 20 years ago. I wish I could, but I don’t. I think when I die, I die. But it would be nice to believe the other.
Your daughter Merit’s death must have been a wrenching experience. Did that pull you in a religious direction?
In one sense. There’s an ancient Aramaic prayer that’s perhaps 5,000 years old. It’s the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. When Merit died, it mattered enormously to me as a non-observant Jew, but a member of the Jewish community, that the Kaddish be said for my daughter.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that Neanderthals buried their dead. They aren’t even in the direct lineage of Homo sapiens. Why did they bury their dead? The need to reach out in these spiritual directions is antique in us. You can see it in the struggle that’s going on right now among religious fundamentalists. Fundamentalist Islam is appalled at the materialism and secularism of the West. Some kind of awakening to the spiritual part of being human seems to me just essential. And this goes beyond where science can go.
You don’t accept traditional beliefs about God. But are you carving out a different space from atheists, especially the scientists who are atheists?
I absolutely am. Take Richard Dawkins‘ book “The God Delusion.” It’s a very good book. And I know Richard, and he lays out the atheist case well. It appeals to the billion or so of us who do not believe in a supernatural God, and who’ve hidden in the corners, particularly in the United States, where religion is so widely adhered to. But it will do no good whatsoever in bridging the gap between those who do believe in some form of God and the secular humanists like Dawkins and myself who do not. We need something else.
Well, Dawkins does not want to bridge that gap. He wants to convince those religious believers that they’re wrong.
Absolutely. But I think Richard is wrong. Not that there’s a supernatural god. I think that there’s something else. I think the creativity in nature is so stunning and so overwhelming that it’s God enough for me, and I think it’s God enough for many of us if we think about it. You see, Richard’s view, and those of the new atheists, is simply not going to reach out and persuade those who hold to the standard Abrahamic religious views to consider something else. Whereas I hope what I’m saying may help create a new kind of sacred space.
Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He has also been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion. More Steve Paulson.
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